Long ago a path was created by the passage of feet tramping through endless forests. Gradually that path became a track, and the track became a road. It connected the White Cliffs of Dover to the Druid groves of the Welsh island of Anglesey, across a land that was first called Albion then Britain, Mercia and eventually England and Wales. Armies from Rome arrived and straightened this 444 kilometres of meandering track, which in the Dark Ages gained the name Watling Street. Today, this ancient road goes by many different names: the A2, the A5 and the M6 Toll. It is a palimpsest that is always being rewritten.
Watling Street is a road of witches and ghosts, of queens and highwaymen, of history and myth, of Chaucer, Dickens and James Bond. Along this route Boudicca met her end, the Battle of Bosworth changed royal history, Bletchley Park code breakers cracked Nazi transmissions and Capability Brown remodelled the English landscape.
The myriad people who use this road every day might think it unremarkable, but, as John Higgs shows, it hides its secrets in plain sight. Watling Street is not just the story of a route across our island, but an acutely observed, unexpected exploration of Britain and who we are today, told with wit and flair, and an unerring eye for the curious and surprising.
Watling Street is available from Bookshop.org – which helps support independent bookshops and authors (affiliate link).
‘A very interesting book […] There’s an awful lot of great fun and many surprises. One of its glories is that you feel you are in the company of a real person – this is somebody talking to you on a walk, and that’s a great feature of it, I think that’s very well done. Boy, this is a fantastic waffle!’ (Alexander McCall Smith, BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read)
‘In Watling Street, an exploration of modern Britain and what it means to be British today, Higgs offers a more nuanced understanding of the national psyche . . . [it] is a book for our times’ (Ian Thomson Observer)
‘Mischievous and iconoclastic . . . [Higgs’s] is a systematising imagination, able to harness disparate elements and find the patterns that animate them; that he does so in a more socially inclusive manner than many enriches his theories enormously’ (Melissa Harrison Financial Times)
‘A new vision of England . . . full of magic, mystery and bits of William Blake’ (Ian Samson Times Literary Supplement)
‘A bravura piece of writing – Bill Bryson on acid’ (Tom Holland)
‘It has been said by the old magicians that Watling Street was created in a single night. Or revealed to us between sleeping and waking – a potentiality that is always there but which we have to learn to read. John Higgs does just that: a bright necklace of recoveries and collisions and remarkable witnesses. A tale-telling pilgrim to entertain and inform as we jolt along the way’ (Iain Sinclair)
‘A humorous and thoughtful guide’ (Huston Gilmore Daily Express)
‘Myths combine with staggeringly fascinating facts, while Higgs’ take on our national imagination and the nature of history is refreshingly original . . . [A] mad, but brilliant, odyssey’ (Rebecca Armstrong I Paper)
‘Watling Street is unusual, original and strangely beautiful. It’s full of wonderful stories about this remarkable road, expertly brought to life by Higgs. And even though it’s a travel book, it has more to say about the current climate than most political books’ (Jamie Bartlett, author of Radicals)
‘On a long drive like this, your companion matters as much as the route, of course – and Higgs is an entertaining one, garrulous but disinclined to hector’ (Tom Sutcliffe Mail on Sunday Event)
‘A truly fascinating book . . . from one of the best writers on cultural history we have’ (Scott Pack)
Watling Street comes complete with a four-part podcast series, in which myself and David Bramwell revisit the stories and places in the book accompanied by guests including Salena Godden, Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair, Miranda Kane, CJ Stone, John Constable, Andy Miller, Cerys Matthews and Lord Victor Adebowale. In April 2020 the podcast was selected by The Guardian as one of the top 10 travel podcasts and the Evening Standard in their Best travel podcasts list.